tv Witness LINKTV February 21, 2013 9:00am-9:30am PST
the western is the best type of picture. it's action. you have background. scenery, color. and that's why they're interesting. it's the great american form; it's so simple and elemental, it represents the schizophrenia of the american experience. just when the western seems like it's gone away, someone else comes along with a different twist on it. annenberg media ♪ and: with additional funding from these foundations and individuals: and by: and the annual financial support of:
hello, i'm john lithgow. welcome to "american cinema." in "the man who shot liberty valance," john ford's great film a newspaperman says, "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend." that may not be good journalism but it makes a good western. the history of the western is often a history of legends, billy the kid, wyatt earp, the gunfight at the ok corral. not the real west, but a mythical place
full of images that are uniquely american: the open frontier, the outlaw, the solitary, often reluctant hero. the western is also landscapes; a unique stage on which dramas from the american experience get played out. a young man rebels against his stepfather in "red river." an uncle becomes obsessed with finding his niece in "the searchers." a reformed killer is caught up in a vengeance out of control in "unforgiven." since "the great train robbery" of 1903, hundreds of westerns have been made. it's the great american form, our equivalent of classic greek tragedy, where we replay and reinterpret stories of america, as eli wallach recounts for us in "the western."
(clint eastwood) he's another person adrift on the great west's landscape. that's always been part of the fun of the game is that lone figure on this huge landscape. and what's it like to be out there? it's another world out there. (clint eastwood) maybe he was just somebody who drifted along, happened by, and maybe he was asked for. it's that fantasy of a guy solving the problem himself. he isn't picking up and dialing 911 or other aid.
through his own ingenuity, he's working out the situation. if he doesn't, he doesn't exist. you don't like our company? what's the matter with you? i'm speaking to you. (gunshots) (john sturges) everybody would like to be the fellow that says, i'll do it. i'm the one that can do it. everybody else tries, but turn to me, i can solve it for you. they want the magic touch, they want to be the legend. you liked good westerns and you may not have known why,
but they were wonderful to watch. (budd boetticher) and it's very romantic. if movies could be a religion, you'd get more out of westerns than any other genre. (narrator) the western has come to symbolize american cinema, its images instantly recognizable the world over. many of our foremost directors, writers and actors have been drawn to its elemental moral themes and epic scale; its frontier characters -- fools, charlatans, outlaws and heroes -- confronting the grand themes of life and death on stage, the stark background of america's west. it's a western because of the story form, because of the traditional and conventional aspects of it. isolation. one man up against it, resolving it by violence...
(john sturges) nobody can help him. they're good versus evil truth, or morality tales. (gunfire) (elmore leonard) i thought westerns would be easier to write. you're writing about a time the reader hasn't experienced. places that the reader hasn't been. you make up a town, a one-street town, with the board-front buildings down both sides. perhaps a board sidewalk; and that was easy to describe. there's something about the attire. (elmore leonard) the six-guns worn outside, the hat, the leather. that's what westerns are, the look and the feel.
take 'em to missouri, men. (whistling and yelling) (budd boetticher) you've got two stars in a western. you have your leading men and you have your location. it's so refreshing to get out and smell the fresh air, see the colors of the flowers and the trees and the mountains and the change when the sun sets. and a great deal had to do with the cinematography. you felt that you were there, you weren't cooped up. you weren't in apartments. you were outside. (budd boetticher) you see the west's vastness, that lonesomeness. they want the gulp in your throat. they want your heart to beat a little when you say, "my gosh, he's in trouble if this is indian territory."
underpinning all this stuff is the idea that this is a very romantic view of nature. and there's always that kind of elegiac quality in westerns. the idea that the land endures. and all these antics of humans sort of come and go. that's why the main characters of great westerns are often the landscapes. i mean the monument valley's been the hero of more than one. for americans it's like the great pyramids of egypt in the sense that there are these monumental natural forms that are much bigger than anything we can create. and that experience is kind of a vertical experience. you look up to the sky and you feel the big space and the openness of it and that's good for the soul.
(thomas mcguane) the story's always the "moving on" story. what do you need to know about the western? it's about moving on. and the trouble is, even though the world is round, it's not a permanently solvable dramatic theme in that if you move on in the climate we now live in, in the western, you hit l.a., where westerns are made. (narrator) the cowboy hero was invented by writers, many of whom had never been west of the mississippi. anyone who had lived in the real west knew it wasn't very romantic. but thousands of dime novels fed an insatiable public with thrilling tales of the frontier. the myth easily made its way into film.
by the early 1930's, the western had found a home in grade-b, low-budget movies. the b-movie hero was one-dimensional. a simple, moral guy who lived violently by an uncomplicated code of right and wrong. hollywood made the movies with fancy stunts and chases, but paid little attention to story or character. john wayne, a favorite actor in the serial western, earned his spurs in dozens of low-budget formula pictures. i was afraid you wouldn't get here. well, so was i and if i'm not mistaken, the sheriff isn't very far behind. we have to work fast, the gang didn't get what they were after and they'll be back. yes, and that isn't all you have to worry about, i owe you a lot. but don't you realize that in helping me get away, you're a party to a crime? i never thought of that.
(narrator) the western rode into new territory with "stagecoach," a powerful drama made in 1939 by veteran director john ford. his attention to story and performance created some of the most compelling characters in film. you're the notorious "ringo kid." my friends just call me, ringo. nickname i had as a kid. my name's henry. (man) seems to me i knew your family, henry. didn't i fix your arm once when you were, oh, bucked off a horse? are you doc boone? i certainly am. ah, let's see. i'd been honorably discharged from the union army after the war of the rebellion. you mean the war for the southern confederacy.
i mean nothing of the kind, sir. that was my kid brother broke his arm. you did a good job, doc, even if you was drunk. thank you, son. professional compliments are always pleasing. what happened to that boy whose arm i fixed? he was murdered. (john wayne) john ford was very careful in handling his actors, to make sure that no matter what they do, that it helps to create an emotion in the audience. cause after all, good pictures are about people. and if he can get the emotions out of his actors, it's naturally going to affect the audience. (lindsay anderson) ford had been a director for over twenty years. and had learned how to work with actors, get performances and to achieve reality in terms of character.
i watched you with that baby, that other woman's baby. it looked, well.... well, i still got a ranch across the border. and it's a nice place. a real nice place. trees and grass and water. there's a cabin, half-built. a man could live there... with a woman. will you go? but you don't know me. you don't know who i am. i know all i want to know. (lindsay anderson) dialogue is important, but there are many sequences in "stagecoach," which are purely told through the image. particularly, say, the final chase. (gunfire) (lindsay anderson) a very interesting sequence. it disobeys all the rules.
there's no left to right, and right to left. i mean, they're all going every which way. and it actually doesn't matter. (gunfire) orson welles saw "stagecoach" many times to learn how to tell a story through the camera. (dramatic music playing) (gunshot) (screams in the background) well, the western is the best type of picture. it's action, mostly true. all this has happened. but you have horses, we have movement. and you have background, scenery, color. and that's why they're interesting. (john ford) i like to make westerns to get away from hollywood.
and you get out in the wilds, get fresh air in your lungs. you work hard. you sleep well at night. (narrator) in 1946, john ford returned to a favorite location, monument valley, which was to bece the setting for his next nine westerns, and home to the ensemble of characters who populated his films. (lindsay anderson) there was a period where whatever he said about himself, ford became a conscious artist. his films evokes a story, characters, or place who mean more than they do narratively. so that behind any story in any ford western, are much larger values, moral and historical values. (banjo music and clapping)
the dance on the church site symbolizes effortlessly the development which is going to take place from a frontier town, into a modern city. (banjo music and clapping) oblige me, ma'am? thank you. (narrator) fonda's "wyatt earp" is a man of the prairie who, like the town of tombstone finds himself in transition. his attraction to clementine, a refined woman of the east, pulls him away from his wilderness roots, towards culture and society. hold it, folks, blasted, hold it! stand clear back and make room for our marshal and his lady. (hollering) (elmore leonard) the way he combed his hair, henry fonda, fit the part.
"my darling clementine" had a real feel, a look to it of that period. where he's sitting with his boots up on the rail and someone comes by and smells his hair tonic. there are those little touches of realism that you appreciate. if you have to tell a story with words, you're in trouble. you'd better try and find another story. one of the things that makes westerns work is that they're told by images. which one of you killed james? i did and the other one, too. i'm going to kill you.
(lindsay anderson) to see "my darling clementine," i began to learn what filmmaking could be. i mean, he had a much better sense of camera, image, cutting, putting the sequences together. (gunfire) i'd have to use the word "poetic." (gunfire) look, he knew how to make films. (gunfire) one of the marvelous things about a western is folks ride in and ride out and ride up to each other and encounter each other and with physical action. and of course that's almost pure cinema.
(gunfire) (music playing) (narrator) when hollywood saw the larger possibilities of the western, the form moved into a new era, becoming a stage for a wide variety of stories and visions. (narrator) the western began to attract the most innovative directors, howard hawks, anthony mann, john sturges, john ford, who would shape the new form, as would the man who personified the western more than any single american, john wayne. i've established a character on the screen that may be rough, may be cruel.
may have a different code than the average person, but it's never been mean or petty or small. (narrator) in 1948, howard hawks cast john wayne and screen newcomer montgomery clift in red river, a tale of ruthless authority, written in western language. (arthur penn) when you get a film like "red river," what you had was something with not only good acting, but i think montgomery clift elevated john wayne's acting, by the sheer fullness of what it was he was doing, which has nuance and subtlety and change of posture. i'm gonna hang ya. no, no you're not. what? you're not going to hang them. who'll stop me? i will.
you're a lot more interested in people and personalities and characters of the people who were in the picture, than you are the old plots. and we don't pay much attention to plot anymore. get up. come on, get up. (arthur penn) another thing is that hawks liked women and that shows up. (woman) stop it, stop it. stop making a holy -- (gunshot) "stop it," i said. i'm mad, good and mad and who wouldn't be? you, gus, and pretending you're going to kill him. (clint eastwood) there's always a place for the strong woman, not only to be the catalyst to the male protagonist. but if the female protagonist has-- the more strength she has
the better it is for the whole conflict, or the situation. hold me, feel me in your arms. do i feel weak, tom? i don't, do i? oh, you'll need me. you'll need a woman. you need what a woman can give you, to do what you have to do. oh, listen to me, tom, listen with your head and your heart. the sun only shines half the time, tom. the other half is night. i've made up my mind. change your mind, tom. just once in your life, change your mind. i'll send for you. (thomas schatz) there is an incompatibility in the desire for a woman and everything she represents. the bearer of culture. the bearer of children. the figure whose fundamental function is to tie the man down. and the notion of an individual as one utterly self-reliant. go please, if you're going to go, please go now. i want to be with you so much my knees feel like -- like they've knives in them.
(john sturges) i would think that a happily married couple didn't necessarily fit into the western form. the loner is the perfect thing for you to identify with and pretend you're part of. it's the secret of a hero. reluctance and the loner. (movie narrator) a terror-stricken town left him to face 4 killers, alone. the western requires a thing, call it, "the reluctant hero." people don't like men who tell you how good they are. whereas if you are a brave man that says, "i'm not brave. i'd rather not do this, it's just that i'm stuck. and i certainly prefer not to get into this, but i'm going to have to do it. but i'm not a hero." the audience will say, "oh, yes, you're a hero." he was thrust into a situation he could have walked out of and he didn't. that's being a hero.
don't try to be a hero, you don't have to be a hero. i'm not trying to be a hero. if you think i like this, you're crazy. look, amy, this is my town, i've got friends here. i'll swear in a bunch of special deputies and with a posse behind me, maybe there won't be trouble. (clint eastwood) he was calling on his community to come to his aid. and he was trying to arm the community to defend itself. and the community didn't want any part of it. they were letting him stand alone, figuring after all, it was -- he was the one the villains, so why should they get involved? that sort of went along with philosophies of american life. i guess you all know why i'm here. i need deputies, i'll take all i can get. how about it? (sad music playing)
you want the hero to stand for something, integrity. in sticking to what he believes against all odds, even if he's the one doing it all by himself. (man) this is just plain committing suicide. and for what? i'm no lawman. i just live here. i got nothing personal against nobody. i got no stake in this. i guess not. there's a limit how much you can ask a man. i got a wife and kids, what about my kids? go on home to your kids, herb. (howard hawks) i'd seen a picture called "high noon," where the sheriff, played by gary cooper, went around begging everybody to help him. (gunshot) and eventually his quaker wife saves his guts. and i said, "that's ridiculous. the man wasn't a professional." my idea of a sheriff is a professional who doesn't want amateurs butting in and does it himself.
and so, actually, "rio bravo" started that way. just talking about why you hadn't asked for deputies. you could get some, you know. how about my drivers, you could use them? suppose i got 'em, what did i have? some well-meaning amateurs. most of them worried about their wives and kids. burdette has 30 or 40 men, all professionals. only thing they're worried about is earning their pay. no, pat, all we'd be doing is giving 'em more targets. the consummate western hero would never ask for help from the townspeople. the very necessity of his existence has to do with their ineptitude not that they're cowards, but they simply are unable to act in -- in an appropriately violent manner. (gunfire) (clint eastwood) violence is depicted in greek tragedy.
depicted in shakespeare. to a great degree, violent situations, or the unusual is what most screen scenario is about. supposin' i don't tell you? then what? where is he? (yelling for help) where is he? drama needs violence because the audience sits there and they are experiencing things. and then, in order for it to take hold, the dramatist really needs this kind of pictorialness or creativity to express an emotion. the character goes through something an audience feel for.
(woman screaming) (gunfire) (john sturges) violence is frightening. well, being frightened in the theatre is part of it. violent pictures will always be with us. people like to see westerns like they like to see a ballet. they like to see a thing they're familiar with. see it done in the way that they anticipate it, but meaningfully. it's a disciplined form. (gunfire) (climactic music playing)
to me, the area of the west that's really interesting is when the west begins to turn sour. and the frontier, the space starts to run out. and ford was right on the cusp of that. and towards the end of his life his questions became harder, about the indians and the implicit racism and the brutality of the west. (narrator) "the searchers" is a tale of a man's quest for his niece, who has been kidnapped by indians, that explores obsession and racial hatred. there's no more time for praying, amen. brad, martin. amen. (music playing) (thomas schatz) i think one of the things that makes "the searchers" such a powerful film is the john wayne figure.